Don your seediest trench coat or sultriest dress and head to the nearest dark alley because it’s time to celebrate that coolest of cool genres: the film noir. From the early ‘40s, these dark-hued thrillers have been populated by iconic, whiskey-stained antiheroes, sharp-eyed femme fatales, world-weary ‘tecs and trigger-happy gangsters; giving us fatalistic tales soundtracked by the screech of tires and the bark of gunshots. Down the years Hollywood’s shadowy B movies have matured into A-list classics. They twist around your mind like the languorous curl of Lucky Strike smoke – stories from the pages of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler told by directors of the calibre of John Huston, Fritz Lang, Anthony Mann, Billy Wilder and Michael Curtiz. Now, with Nicolas Winding Refn’s mod-noir Driver on the horizon, Johnny Depp gearing up for a remake of Hammett’s The Thin Man, edgy French thriller Point Blank arriving in cinemas, and L.A. Noire thrilling gamers, noir is back and you need to know about it. Sexy, smart and sinister, here’s ten classics to get your started.
Director: John Huston
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre
Tagline: "A guy without a conscience! A dame without a heart!"
Whether this noir trailblazer is better than Howard Hawks’ equally definitive Bogart thriller The Big Sleep is a matter for debate, preferably in a dark corner of your local speakeasy at 4am. In the end, it boils down to preference: Hammett or Chandler? Spade or Marlowe? Astor or Hepburn? Falcon offers none of the chauffeur-driven blind alleys that still stump us - and baffled even Chandler - in The Big Sleep, but the smouldering sexual chemistry, oily hucksters (Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, John Ridgely) and pervasive air of menace are all present and correct. John Huston’s San Francisco-set whodunit came first, plucking a whole new genre from the studio ghetto with storytelling as complex and sophisticated as anything audiences had seen before. The plot’s McGuffin – a precious artefact that would give Lucas and Spielberg an idea or two – was chased by one of the greatest noir casts assembled. Bogart, who’d been cast into the to B-movie wilderness in a fit of pique by Jack Warner, led it, making a mockery of the initial decision to cast George Raft. He peppers the film with machine-gun patter, cynical smarts and some of the best lines in ‘40s cinema. “You always have a very smooth explanation,” Joel Cairo sighs in frustration, as Spade weaves his way out of another corner. “What do you want me to do,” says Spade, “learn to stutter?” Heck no Sam, we love you just as you are.
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson
Tagline: “From the moment they met it was murder!”
Aside from a cast of store-ready villains, cinema doesn’t have a whole lot to thank the Nazis for, but it can say a big “thanks” for Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. Both were driven out of the Third Reich and delivered their genius to Hollywood's doorstep. The former helped establish the shadowy look of the noir; the latter helped define it with this great thriller. Double Indemnity framed a murder mystery with a newsreel narrative and turned traditional studio casting on its head. Wilder turned the clean-cut good guys – Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray – into murderous shysters, and picked a bad guy, Edward G. Robinson, to play the smart, moral man who relentlessly pursues them. Smartly, he also turned to the don of detective prose, Raymond Chandler, to shape James M. Cain’s novel into a screenplay - and what a screenplay. MacMurray’s Walter Neff (“Two ‘F’s, like in Philadelphia”), an insurance salesman with a moral compass that wouldn't get him to the next corner and back, packs some great lines (“How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”) but the real dozys belong to the honeysuckle, Stanwyck’s arch-villainess Phyllis Dietrichson. Together with Robinson, they barnstorm possibly the greatest film ever made about insurance.
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake
Tagline: “He went searching for love... but Fate forced a DETOUR to Revelry... Violence... Mystery!”
Shot in six days, working on a budget that wouldn’t cover the craft services bill of a studio pic and running at just over an hour, Austrian émigré Edgar G. Ulmer made a little go a long way in this superior Poverty Row thriller. Tom Neal plays Al, a nightclub musician who hitchhikes his way to his girlfriend in California. When he gets there, there’s one dead driver (Charles Haskell Jr.) behind him and the dead man’s money and ID in his pocket. Cue the femme fatale, Ann Savage, who demands he use his new identity to pick up the dead man’s inheritance and threatens to call the cops if he doesn’t. In true antihero style, Al proclaims his innocence throughout, even as the bodies mount up. Some of the sexual politics - “I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world: a woman” – probably won’t feature in too many feminist quote books, but then this acid noir wasn’t designed to show the sunnier side of life. It’s as bleak as the sun-scorched desert Al makes his way across towards his Hayes Code-enforced end. A cult classic.
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas
Tagline: “A guy without a fortune! A girl with too much past!”
If RKO, the edgiest of Hollywood’s big five studios, stumbled on noirs as a cheap way of keeping its slate ticking over, it sure unleashed some firecrackers. Unsurprising perhaps, considering the quality of directors patrolling its lot. The likes of Anthony Mann, Robert Wise and Nicholas Ray all cut their teeth at the studio in the ‘40s. Then there’s this gem. Subtitled ‘Build My Gallows High’, it’s a black-as-pitch template for anyone who wants to make a classic film noir, giving us twisted timelines and enough fatalistic loners, double-dealing molls and unrepentant villains to staff an entire circle of hell. Director Jacques Tourneur’s crew also boasted a cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, who did so much to establish the genre’s ‘noir’ look. Borrowing from German expressionism styles of Lang, Murnau and co., his chiaroscuro lighting offers plenty of dark nooks from which bad guys (and girls) could emerge with teeth bared and revolvers cocked. And there are plenty of bad guys to fill them. Chief among them is a young Kirk Douglas as a gangster with an almost Tex Avery-like weakness for his ex-girlfriend Jane Green. We say ‘ex’ only because she’s shot him and made off with $40,000, hardly a deal-breaker in film noir relationships. Bullet wound or no bullet wound, he still yearns for her badly enough to send Robert Mitchum’s P.I. after her. “I just want her back,” he growls at the laconic gumshoe. “When you see her, you'll understand better." He does. It doesn’t end well.
Director: Carol Reed
Cast: James Mason, Robert Newton, Cyril Cusack, Kathleen Ryan
Like John Boulting’s Brighton Rock, this is definitive proof that the Limeys could also make a decent fist at this most American genre. Carol Reed went on to direct classics like The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949), but the English director got the noir feel right first time with a political thriller set on the cobbled streets of Belfast. It was a ballsy choice, considering the controversy that was bound to cloud the film’s release – Irish nationalism was hardly catnip for audiences of the time. Reed’s conflicted antihero is Johnny McQueen (James Mason), an IRA man on the lam with a bullet in his chest, the arm of the law on his shoulder and only long-suffering girlfriend (Kathleen Ryan) prepared to fight his corner. It’s Mason’s film all the way, and the plight of his sweating, suffering nationalist is presented through the brain-bendiest POV shots this side of Enter The Void. The great Aussie cinematographer Robert Krasker may be better known for his work on The Third Man and Brief Encounter, but his and Reed’s Belfast (recreated on Denham Studios soundstages) is a thing of grimy menace, haunted by devious publicans, mad artists, underhanded bird-fanciers and fanatical gangsters. As the clock ticks, can the dying McQueen find salvation among this cast of ne’er-do-wells? Just try taking your eyes off it.
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Jocelyn Brando
Tagline: “A hard cop and a soft dame!”
This classic enshrined Fritz Lang as the link between German expressionism and American noir, but the tagline had it wrong. The “hard cop” was Glenn Ford’s homicide sergeant Dave Bannion, but “soft dame”? Well, there ain’t too many in The Big Heat’s hardboiled world. Definitely not Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), the dame on the make who gets too close to Bannion for the local crime syndicate’s liking and ends up with a face full of scalding coffee. Aside from a strong argument for iced latte, it’s possibly the defining act of weapons’-grade nastiness in the whole noir canon – which is saying something given the rogue’s gallery of psychos and pistol-packing maniacs that crept out of William McGivern’s pulp novel alone. Bannion, whose wife is murdered when he starts poking around a suspicious suicide in the department, chucks in his badge to pursue them, leading him straight to a hive of bad guys. He’s an upstanding cop on the surface, but scratch a little and you find a man blithely endangering all the women he brings into his life in the headlong pursuit of revenge. But then, that righteousness lark is no easy ride, especially with Lee Marvin and Alexander Scourby’s blank-eyed hoodlums on the prowl.
Director: Robert Aldrich
Cast: Ralph Meeker, Gaby Rodgers, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart
Tagline: “Blood red kisses! White hot thrills! Mickey Spillane's latest H-bomb!”
Robert Aldrich’s nihilist noir was intended as a counterblast to post-war paranoia: a movie that was designed to give McCarthyite witch-hunters and Cold War hawks sleepless nights, but that gave everyone else one too. Watching it now, it’s a majestically sour-faced slice of monochrome cool. More hard-boiled than a vulcanised free-range and boasting the ethics of a FIFA suit, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is the man the story hitches a ride with, taking in some down and dirty corners of the human psyche along the way. The ‘Great Whatsit’ Hammer quests after gives new meaning to the word ‘boom-box’. It’s a mysterious, malevolent case that’s resurfaced in different guises in Pulp Fiction, Barton Fink and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, to name a few. While it’s never entirely faithful to Mickey Spillane’s novel, Aldrich’s adaptation picks the right dame to stray with in Gaby Rodgers’s icy blonde, a femme at least 25% more 'fatale' than any in cinema.
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Philippe Nahon, Serge Reggiani
With its traditional love of US gangster flicks and a serious case of post-war blues, France was fertile ground for film noir to make the journey across the Atlantic. After all, what could be better than a bunch of gloomy men with guns? Nothing, especially if they were complex Gallic types like Tony le Stéphanois (Jules Dassin’s Rififi), Jef Costello (Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai) and Jean (Marcel Carné’s Le Quai Des Brumes) - handsome, brooding antiheroes who toy with our sympathies but probably couldn’t give un tóss if we take their side or not. More than any of his peers, Melville bridged noir and New Wave, so the hats, pistols and trench coats remain ubiquitous but the narrative is vaguer and the style looser. He gives his antihero, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s titular snitch - “Le Doul” is shorthand for finger man - motives murky enough to keep you guessing to the final reel. Has he sold out old friend Faugel (Reggiani) or is it all a cunning ploy to double-cross his police paymasters? Hey, it’s Jean-Paul Belmondo. Whatever he does, he's going to make it look fairly cool.
Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Elliott Gould, Sterling Hayden, Nina Van Pallandt, Jim Bouton
Tagline: “Nothing says goodbye like a bullet.”
Elliott Gould’s slacker take on Chandler’s iconic private eye, Philip Marlowe, is a whole different animal from the man Bogart brought to the screen 20 years before. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine Bogey trying to find the right brand of cat food for his unimpressed feline; for another, Gould’s shambling P.I. gets far little change out of a plot that plonks him fish-out-water style into a high-gloss Los Angeles. It’s an uncaring, unsharing world, where Marlowe’s old school values mark him out as a bit, well, weird. His loyalty to his friends only drags him into a cesspit of blackmail and murder - developments he greets by offering a world-weary shrug and lighting another smoke. Whatever the term ‘neo-noir’ means to you, Robert Altman helped reboot the genre and spiced it with ‘70s counterculture cool. The old-school noir trademarks are there - there’s a nasty nod to The Big Heat when a gangster’s moll is scarred, the villains are suitably amoral - but Altman turns them on their head brilliantly, crafting a UV-filled noir that's up there with Chinatown. And yes, that is a young Arnold Schwarzenegger rippling quietly in the corner.
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh
Tagline: “Dead in the heart of Texas”
When the New York Times’ film critic described this neo-noir as “a directorial debut of extraordinary promise”, it turned out to be a bit of an understatement. The Coen brothers fulfilled that promise, and then some, revisiting film noir regularly along the way, with Barton Fink, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing and The Man Who Wasn’t There swelling the canon's ranks of ratfinks, doomed loners and moral crusaders. Their first noir carried the genre from its claustrophobic urban backdrop and dumped it in Texas's vast open spaces, splicing it with Western DNA and setting it free in a venal world where your best friend and your worst enemy would become one for a sniff of a dollar bill. As narrator M. Emmet Walsh explains: “In Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else. What I know about is Texas... down here, you're on your own.” Walsh’s private eye hardly helps things when he takes jealous barkeep Dan Hedaya’s dime to track down and kill his cheating wife (McDormand) and her lover (Getz). The setting is a small town in the Lone Star state, where a grimy, back-alley bar ends splattered in blood, but the location that stays with you involves a shallow grave in a ploughed field halfway to Nowheresville.